Chai on Life

Sermon given May 1, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Have you heard the story about the first President from San Antonio? She is Jewish, so a few months after her inauguration, she calls to invite her mother to come to the White House for the Seder.

The mother really doesn’t want to go, so she starts to kvetch and moan. There are no non-stop flights from San Antonio to D.C., and changing planes at Dallas-Ft. Worth is a major hassle. “I’m the President,” declares the daughter. I’ll send Air Force One and fly you in non-stop.” “That’s very nice,” says the mother, but parking at the airport is such a mess, what with all that construction.” “I’m the Commander-in-Chief,” declares the daughter. “The Secret Service will pick you up in a limousine. They will drive you straight out onto the tarmac, directly to the plane. In Washington, a helicopter will bring you directly from the Air Force Base to the White House lawn, where I will greet you personally.” Finally, the mother accepts.

Then, one of her friends calls, and asks her about her plans for Seder. “Oh,” she says, “I’m going to be with my daughter.”

“The doctor?,” her friend asks, hopefully.

“No,” the mother replies, dejected. “The other one.”

Perhaps it’s a cliche that Jewish parents dream that their children will grow up to be physicians. Like most stereotypes, though, there is some truth beneath the laughter. Throughout history, Jews have valued learning, and knowledge is essential to the practice of medicine. Jews have placed great emphasis on compassion, and we all hope that our doctors are caring. Jews have always prayed for healing. And, most of all, Jews have always valued life.

Two modern Reform Jewish authors have observed that “[s]ome of the greatest figures of Jewish history, including Maimonides,… made their living as physicians. It is no coincidence that Jews represented a disproportionate number of physicians and medieval researchers of renown. Nor is it a coincidence that an amazing percentage of [former] Soviet Jews coming to Israel are doctors!

“The obligation to provide medical care… was a religious obligation accepted by Jews throughout history. It is no less binding on us today,” which may explain why a relatively large number of our own Temple members are physicians. Healing is an important expression of “tikkun olam,” the mitzvah of repairing world.

This weekend, here at Temple Beth-El, we are blessed with the presence of some 200 members of the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s Texas-Oklahoma Region, NFTY for short. NFTY is deeply committed to doing the work of tikkun olam, to spreading healing throughout the world.

In planning this NFTY Spring Conclave, SAFTY’s leaders wanted to take advantage of one of San Antonio’s finest attributes. Perhaps our guests are not aware that our city is rapidly becoming a world-renown center of healing. San Antonio is the home of United States military medicine. We take pride in the University of Texas Health Science Center here, which is quickly gaining in its reputation, despite its youth. We are also blessed with skilled and compassionate private practitioners.

Tomorrow, NFTYites will visit many of the physicians and facilities that make up our world-class medical community. They will learn about new research, and wrestle with ethical issues. They will meet emerging leaders in a wide range of fields, ranging from organ transplants to cosmetic dermatology, from psychiatry to pediatrics, from in vitro fertilization to cancer research.

Earlier tomorrow morning, each group will prepare for its field visit by studying traditional Jewish teachings. Groups visiting hospice facilities will study ancient Jewish rulings on prolonging life and delaying the hour of death. Those who will visit the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health will engage in discussion about Jewish prayers for healing. Another group, before visiting Planned Parenthood, will examine Jewish teachings about the status of the fetus.

The teachings on these different subjects vary widely, and some of them are surprising. They all share once central theme, which inspired the title phrase for this Conclave. Judaism is “chai on life.”

Most of us have learned that just about any Jewish law may be superseded in order to save a life. For example, Jews who strictly avoid work on the Sabbath would break every Shabbat prohibition in order to rush a critical patient to the hospital. We also know that the Talmud proclaims that one who saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world. Judaism places the highest importance on each and every human life.

As a result, our ancient faith, including its fundamentalist formulations, embraces even the most modern advances if they promote life. For example, Judaism endorses donation of vitally needed human organs. All streams of Judaism welcome the progress of infertility treatment, so that human life may increase. Even cosmetic procedures are accepted, if they are not dangerous, because they may enhance human life.

On the other hand, Judaism is skeptical about some medical research. If one is asked to risk one’s self for the future benefit of others, our tradition asks us to consider the importance of one particular human life: namely, our own.

Moreover, though we remain pro-choice as a matter of American freedom, Judaism demands that we pause before endorsing abortion for ourselves. We must not end a potential life without good reason. Departing from some other religions, though, we are taught that the life of the mother, already a living person, takes precedence over that of the fetus.

Finally, we learn that the reverence for life does not demand that we force unsustainable life to continue at any cost. We elevate life when we treat its final moments with respect. Though we vigorously oppose euthanasia in any form, we are also told not to prolong the hour of natural death. Incessant, unnatural life-saving interventions do not truly enhance life, and are not mandated by Judaism.

Our lives have been given to us by our parents, in creative partnership with God. We did not earn our lives on our own, or create them ourselves. Our lives, therefore, do not ultimately belong exclusively to each of us. We may not do with them whatever we please, no matter how destructive.

As our congregation gathers tonight to celebrate the gift of life, and as NFTY joins this Shabbat in studying the meaning of life, let us all celebrate this unique, priceless, irreplaceable gift we have been given. Nothing is more important than one single life, not even the entire world.

Let us be grateful for those physicians and nurses who have been inspired with the skill, the compassion, and the wisdom of healing.

May we give thanks to God, the Source of life, and the One who has planted that skill, compassion and wisdom in our human healers.

Let us rejoice in the lives we have been given, and commit ourselves to enhancing the lives of others.

Amen.